GOP loses a voice of diversity, independence

Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma won't seek reelection after 'wonderful ride.' Democrats eye the open seat.

The resignation of J.C. Watts – the highest-ranking African-American Republican in Congress – means that the House GOP leadership is losing one of its most independent voices.

An ordained minister and former football star at the University of Oklahoma, Mr. Watts has never seemed to view himself as a conventional career politician. Some colleagues have described him as a moderating voice in his party's top ranks. Others have at times complained about touches of self-promotion.

"J. C. Watts has his own agenda – being his own man. He doesn't seem himself or feel comfortable just being a cog in the wheel," says David Bositus, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Watts's departure was not unexpected. Two years ago, and again in the weeks leading up to Monday's resignation, the Oklahoma representative signaled he was unhappy with how he was being treated.

An early advocate for a Department of Homeland Defense – despite opposition from the White House – he was left off the leadership team eventually picked to carry it out. Cancellation of the Crusader artillery, which would have been built in his district, was also a blow.

Then, there was the leadership fight that never surfaced after the departure of House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas. Moderate Republicans, several importunately, urged Watts to take on the powerful House Whip, Tom DeLay, one of the hardest-line conservatives in the House.

But within hours of the Armey resignation, Mr. Delay announced he had the votes to secure the job for himself, even before fall elections determined the composition of the new House. Another disappointment. "The voice of moderation in the leadership will now be absent," says Marshall Wittman, an analyst with the Hudson Institute. "In many ways, Watts was the brake on Delay in the leadership and now that's gone."

As House Republican Conference chair, Watts was responsible for defining the party's message. His election to that post in November 1998 was heralded as a bold statement of the GOP's new opening to minorities. His quiet, civil style was a marked contrast to the harshness of the Newt Gingrich era.

But the promise of outreach to minorities never materialized. "He could have been, should have been, might have been the point man for a really prolonged effort in the minority community. In point of fact, that effort" never even began, says Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst.

In recent weeks, Watts has talked about the possibility of retiring from Congress with a number of lawmakers as well as President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who a half century ago sparked a protest by refusing to sit in the back of a bus.

Watts read a letter he received from Ms. Parks, in which she wrote: "I am glad I stayed in my seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Dec. 1, 1955.... I would also like you to keep your seat."

Yet Watts said he was convinced it was time to move on. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. He also has told Republicans that he is tired and needs to make more money.

"It has been a wonderful ride," Watts said yesterday in Norman, Okla. "Of course, the work of America is never done, but I believe my work in the House of Representatives at this time of my life is completed."

Watts was first elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the "Republican Revolution" that saw his party win control of the House for the first time in 40 years with vows to cut taxes, reduce federal regulation, and revamp welfare. He joined the leadership four years ago, in the fourth-ranking position of chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Watts' departure could give Democrats an opportunity to pick up a seat in the battle for control of the House this fall. He is the second member of the House GOP leadership to announce retirement plans, joining Mr. Armey.

• Material from Francine Kiefer and wire services was used in this report.

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